THE BLOG
04/12/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Teacher Rx: The Perfect Storm For Reform

No reform is more critical to closing the nation's shameful achievement gap than boosting the quality of teachers in high-poverty schools. As President Obama has suggested, a new generation of gifted teachers in inner-city schools could prove to be the unsung heroes of education reform. "The single most important factor in determining [student] achievement is not the color of their skin or where they come from," says President Obama. "It's not who their parents are or how much money they have--it's who their teacher is." Without "the right people standing in front of the classroom," concludes a Brookings Institution analysis, "school reform is a futile exercise."

How can the nation spawn an army of topnotch teachers in inner-city schools? Low-income minority students, who already struggle with the burdens of poverty and the vestiges of discrimination, should, by all rights, be taught by the most effective teachers. But in a travesty of the American creed of equal educational opportunity, access to the best teachers is now more a matter of zip code than need. Stanford professor Linda Darling-Hammond reports that "analysts consistently find that the most inequitably distributed resource--and the one most predictive of student achievement--is the quality of teachers. Many schools serving the most vulnerable students have been staffed by a steady parade of untrained, inexperienced, and temporary teachers."

To get better teachers in failing urban schools, President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan should start with the recognition that today's instructional inequities are not primarily the "fault" of teachers. Inner-city schools have many effective, dedicated teachers but the teaching profession does far too little to recruit promising teachers to high-poverty schools or retain them by providing merit pay. The shortage of effective teachers in high-poverty schools stems less from the personal or professional shortcomings of teachers than from a system for cultivating teaching talent that regularly fails both teachers and students. It's the system, stupid--and it desperately needs reform.

From the moment a prospective teacher enters a teachers college to the day of his or her retirement party, a teacher's ability to elevate student learning is poorly assessed (if at all), and virtually never linked to consequences--either positive, as in the case of awarding merit pay, or negative, like being dismissed for poor performance.

Under the so-called single-pay salary schedule, teachers with equivalent years of experience and educational attainment now receive the same salary, irrespective of how much their students are actually learning or whether they teach in underserved schools. This uniform salary schedule was conceived a century ago, when schools were thought of as factories where teachers played the role of interchangeable assembly line workers. But in the 21st century, teachers are long overdue to join the ranks of other white-collar professionals, whose remuneration is based chiefly on job performance. "It is astonishing to me that you could have a system that doesn't allow you to pay more for strong performance, or for teaching in a particular school," says Bill Gates. "That is almost like saying 'Teacher performance doesn't matter'--and that's basically saying 'Students don't matter'."

The problem with the teaching profession today is not just that it is indifferent to a teacher's performance in the classroom but rather that it has erected institutional and contractual bulwarks to protect the very practices most in need of change. A new report from the National Council on Teacher Quality reports that "only two states require any evidence of teacher effectiveness to be considered as part of tenure decisions. All other states permit districts to award tenure virtually automatically." Since 2006, two of the nation's most populous states--California and New York, home to more than 600,000 teachers--have even enacted laws that effectively bar school administrators from considering a teacher's impact on student performance in teacher pay and tenure decisions.

Yet today, for the first time, lawmakers and educators have a rare opportunity to remake the nation's antiquated system for recruiting, training, evaluating, and rewarding teachers. The stimulus bill, which contains unprecedented federal funding for education reform, and the threat of looming state and local reductions in K-12 spending due to the recession, have combined to create what Secretary Duncan calls a "perfect storm for reform."

Previous efforts to improve teacher quality have failed because they have misdiagnosed the problem. Typically, educators have sought to raise barriers to entry into the teaching profession--employing educational credentials, licensure, and certification as proxies for teacher quality. The No Child Left Behind law, for example, requires teachers in core academic subjects to be "highly qualified", as evidenced by a bachelor's degree, full state licensure and certification, and demonstrated subject-area competence. Yet credentials and certification are poor indicators of who will become an effective teacher. In fact, promising alternative programs for recruiting and certifying teachers, like Teach for America and the New York City Teaching Fellows program, are every bit if not more effective than the traditional training provided at teachers colleges.

Instead of raising barriers to the teaching profession, government officials must work much harder to identify and reward the best teachers--and dismiss the worst ones. When disadvantaged students have a good teacher a number of years in a row, it can eliminate, or at least make a huge dent, in the achievement gap.

One study of 9,400 math classrooms in Los Angeles in grades three through five projects that if low-income minority students could be assured of having teachers who fell in the top 25 percent of effective teachers four years in a row (in lieu of a sub-par instructor from the bottom quartile of teachers), students could close the achievement gap altogether. No school reform measure comes close to having such a profound impact on minority achievement.

To move toward a true performance-based compensation system for teachers, school districts would need to be able to track the effect that individual teachers have on student performance from year-to-year over a period of years. These "valued-added" assessments must not only be fair but transparent--which means that value-added data must be rich enough to isolate the impact of a teacher on student learning by holding constant an array of variables outside a teacher's control, such as the starting achievement level of students and the number of students with specialized needs, like English language learners and special ed pupils. Unfortunately, only a handful of states and districts have developed data bases that would enable school officials to track the performance of individual teachers and students over a multi-year period.

We believe that the Obama administration should require states seeking money from the new $5 billion "Race to the Top" innovation fund to not only develop but implement longitudinal value-added systems for assessing teacher performance. For all its imperfections and methodological challenges, value added analysis is still a vast improvement on the existing system, which fails its elemental duty to judge whether teachers are advancing student learning.

Developing a credible system for tracking and evaluating teacher performance would also facilitate a host of important reforms vital to closing the achievement gap. For the first time, teachers and schools could truly be held accountable for raising minority achievement. Effective teachers could receive merit pay, while persistently poor performers, as President Obama has suggested, would be dismissed.

Any system that states devise to evaluate teacher performance should include test scores and gains in student achievement as its key measuring stick. But the federal government should also encourage states and districts to use a variety of outcome-based measures besides test scores to evaluate the impact of teachers on student performance. Structured classroom observations by principals and master teachers, independent assessments of student work, and teacher attendance are just a few of the outcome-based measures that districts might employ. Denver's ProComp merit-pay program rewards teachers and schools that meet academic goals, exceed expectations on state exams, and earn good evaluations from principals.

The ultimate goal of transforming the teaching profession is that every classroom will one day be led by an effective instructor who advances student learning. As the education historian Diane Ravitch has written, "The quality of teachers in the nation's schools matters very much. For some children, the quality of their teacher is the difference between success and failure. A nation with a goal of 'no child left behind' will have to find effective strategies to ensure that every child has good teachers."

Transforming the teaching profession into a merit-based system is an obvious first step toward reducing educational inequality. But change won't come easily, given the adherence to current perquisites in education schools, teachers unions, and district bureaucracies. Holding teachers accountable for student learning would constitute a truly radical shift in our nation's schools, and that chain of accountability for student achievement should extend straight up to principals and the superintendent. The good news is that this radical transformation of the teaching profession would again help make education the great equalizer in America--and not an ongoing source of inequity and injustice.

Joel I. Klein, chancellor of the New York City Department of Education, and Rev. Sharpton, president of the National Action Network, are co-chairs of the Education Equality Project.